Newsflash: Kids don't do stuff just because you say so. You have to make them. There's a couple of ways to do that. You can force them, which is a time-tested technique for raising a sociopath. You can gently coax, which is great mostly, as long as you are never ever in a hurry and have the patience of a golden retriever. Unfortunately, that leaves lies, distractions, bribery and trickery as your most realistic bet — all methods that get results — and fast. The best part is, lying to children is a universally endorsed parenting approach, so you never ever have to feel bad about it. The problem is, I'm not super great at it yet.
Lying works because kids are dumb in the sweetest, most innocuous sense of the word — they literally don't know much of anything until you tell them, and they totally trust you. But they are intuitively smart and know boring, healthy stuff the nanosecond they see it. So here's where you come in, a one-person spin machine, a human life-fluffer, spinning your web of lies to boost the ratings of all the necessary evils that the world will foist upon your child from the mundane to the downright painful.
That's right: Lies. Oh, I know we don't like to think of them as lies, per se, which is part of what makes humans such big, constant, good, terrifying liars — our ability to spin literally anything into a justifiable, even fun and benevolent act that isn't really so awful if you just think about it — Oooh, look at the pretty picture! — NEEDLE STICK.
In fact, having a kid is a liar's delight, because not only can you lie with abandon for what appears to be the first several years of your child's existence, you can lie in a variety of ways that literally never gets old for you. To wit:
Santa comes if you're good! Tooth Fairy gives you money! Spiderman is possible! Being a princess is a not ridiculous at all! The world is full of magic and whimsy! Things are either good or evil, never in between! Believing in shit that's not real is literally what it means to be a kid! It's GOOD for you!
It's true, these are all lies that make the world "more fun" and we are all willing accomplices. But, uh, once kids realize that stuff isn't real I guess they are totally fine? Look at us! We're all fine! People aren't massively depressed and medicated and disillusioned all the time! We aren't spending nearly all of our money/time/existence escaping into literally just the adult version of the same fantasy worlds we created for ourselves as children or anything. So we're great! Case closed. Lying rules!
Seriously: I wonder if there is not some kind of lying middle ground here, where we make all the holiday, cartoon-y superhero-y make-believe stuff less over-the-top false, but still fun, and not so lie-y? Imagination is super cool and stuff, but watching children's cartoons and all their attendant consumerist paraphernalia seems about as helpful in showing a kid about the world as watching the movie Xanadu would help you prep for a bank job. I honestly feel the biggest part of my role as a parent aside from keeping my kid safe is trying to manage exposure levels for the radiation of the assorted lying marketing campaigns directed at kids. It's not possible, BTW. In case you were wondering.
Today, my kid got a haircut and they gave her a helium balloon which made her understandably wonder if she could "fly like Spiderman" based on the zillion billboards and Beanie babies and pictures and cartoons and movies in the air all around us, and I had to explain about a thousand times that she'd need like a hundred balloons for her to be able to float around like Spiderman and even then, it's not going to work anyway because you know, Spiderman can't really fly because Spiderman is make-believe. She paused, looked at me quizzically, and then asked for some ice cream. Luckily, I happen to carry it around with me in a portable cooler for just such tough parenting moments. Send my Parent of the Year award first class if you could.
Sometimes you will want to go out at night and your kid might get upset and it's just easier to be like "Mommy has to go to work" then it is to explain "Mommy is going to meet her friend for two beers at some bar called Liquid Kitty so please let go of my new blouse." Kids understand far more than we think they do, but these lies are basically unavoidable because there's no point telling a 3 year old all about why beer is good unless you are prepared to serve it to them the next night at dinner. It's a continuity thing.
This whole "part of the truth but not the whole truth" approach is the lyingest I can get, because it's grounded in a reality they can understand but doesn't distort the very foundation upon which we live like all the other lies: "Mommy is going to fly on a spaceship to the outer rings of Planet Zoratron to gather crystals for the next invasion. Sleep well."
Kids are notoriously fast at things that will kill them, like running towards swimming pools, cars and cliffs, and notoriously slow at things that would keep them safe/healthy, like climbing into a car seat to buckle themselves in or brushing their own teeth — something they insist upon doing themselves at a certain age. Your requests for speed and/or compliance when trying to get them to sleep, or while trying to exit a parking lot full of impatient honking vultures, will fall on deaf ears. Instead, your child might stop just at the edge of the car seat, sit down and say, "I have to think about it."
I don't know any good lies for this stuff. Literally, you will hurt yourself and literally your teeth will fall out seem applicable right from the start as motivators for non-negotiables. It's worked for us. But I suppose trickery is good, like saying brushing your teeth will make you be able to fly or something? See, I'm really bad at this.
Other people are not: When my friend's sister was little, she would apparently only eat pork chops, so her mom told the sister that all meat was pork chops. It totally worked, but I have to wonder how difficult it was to undo this misinformation. We had a babysitter growing up who got us to clean up her son's room every week by saying we were making it sparkly "just like California," a lie so hilariously backwards I can't believe how thoroughly we bought it. I still hate that woman.
It Won't Hurt a Bit Lies
OK, here's where I draw the line. I just can't get into the deliberate misleading. I can't say the shot won't hurt when I know the shot is gonna hurt. Here's what I can do: The shot is going to just go boop, and it will be over in a flash. Besides, all it takes is one shot and your kid knows you're not only a liar, but also an asshole. And there's no amount of ice cream that will ever make up for that.
Tracy Moore is a writer living in Los Angeles. She knows the lying gets even more complicated as the kid gets older. School her on Twitter @iusedtobepoor.